Pharrell Williams returns to church roots in choir series; music director says 'it's rewarding'

"Voices of Fire" series cover, Bishop Ezekiel Williams and Pharrell Williams, 2020 | Netflix

Netflix and popular music producer Pharrell Williams are gearing up to release a new series that follows the making of a new gospel choir meant to “take gospel music to a new dimension.” 

The unscripted project titled, “Voices of Fire,” premieres on Nov. 20 and follows Williams and gospel leaders as they embark on a quest to find undiscovered talent in Williams' hometown of Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

The series includes a very animated choir director Patrick Riddick and Williams' uncle, Bishop Ezekiel Williams. Ezekiel Williams is the general overseer, pastor and founder of Faith World Ministries. 

As reported by Billboard, the streaming service ordered Williams' docuseries focusing on efforts to build "one of the world’s most inspiring gospel choirs.”

Although Williams is widely known as an Academy-nominated mainstream music producer and artist, he is returning to his childhood roots, which began in the Church.

Throughout the show, Williams is seen sporting a hoodie that says “Ye Must be Born Again." The artist often uses Christian language when talking to his uncle or the singers.

“Pharrell and I grew up together in the same church. We came up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. His grandmother was our church mother,” Riddick told The Christian Post in a recent interview.

“It lets you know the Bible is right. It says to ‘train up a child and the way they should go and when he is older, they will not depart,’” the music director added, giving God praise for Williams’ return to God and his willingness to share it publicly with Netflix viewers. 

Below is an exclusive clip from "Voices of Fire":

The following is an edited transcript of Riddick’s interview with CP, where he details the journey of putting together a 75-member multicultural choir with Williams and the bishop. Riddick revealed how God has hand-selected each member. 

Christian Post: Can you share briefly a little bit about your own testimony and your journey of becoming a choir director, popularly known as the "Prince of Choirs?"

Riddick: I would say about 1987-1988, I started out being an organist first. That was my passion, my heart. I witnessed a special that Patti LaBelle did. It was called "Going Home to Gospel." There was this guy with the choir, it was Ricky Dillard. I hadn't seen anybody command a choir and move like he moved.

Ever since that moment, I started directing. I dropped organ and I've just been doing that ever since. That's been nearly 30 years or more. When I started directing choirs, I think I was maybe 10 or 11. So ever since then, I've been going. 

I'm very laid back and I can be very shy unless I'm working in music. I've been told that I'm like one of the people that everybody that's coming up that wants to direct gospel choirs and things, they watch and glean from, so they started calling the Prince of Choir.

CP: There's a quote heard throughout "Voices of Fire" where the bishop says he wants "this choir to take gospel music to another dimension to produce something the world has never known." What does that mean? 

Riddick: When they say that, in my heart, to me, it's bringing gospel music back to where it was. Years ago, when you talk about all the many great artists that came out — whether it be Tina Turner, the Beatles, whoever — a lot of those artists from the '50s, '60s and the '70s, in particular, everything they got, they were inspired by what was done in the Church.

Somewhere along the way, as we got into the '80s, the '90s and the 2000s, it began to be reversed.

Everything in church [became] influenced by what is done secularly. Taking it to another level, I believe it's when we become proud of who we are and what we do and we're confident in that and we do it to a level of excellence that now, here again, the R&B, the pop, the rap, jazz, whoever, they start looking at us again, and being influenced by what we do, because it's just so fresh. It's just encouraging. It's just inspirational. It's cutting edge.

CP: The choir is multicultural. Why do you think it's important to have a racially diverse gospel choir?

Riddick: I believe that when you're talking about the Gospel, it is the good news. And then when you put it with music, it is the good news shared musically. The Gospel is for everybody who would believe, who will receive. How can you segregate or limit that or exclude? 

Talk about music, which is the only universal language in the entire world out of every language there is. A quarter note on the C is a quarter note on the C wherever you go. So you have gospel, it's inclusive of everybody. I think having a choir with many different backgrounds and nationalities it's just amazing. 

It was different for me because I had never done that. With all the years that I've been working with choirs, it has just been with African Americans. So it's been an amazing experience! Some of those people that are in "Voices of Fire," I talk to on the regular and I feel like had it not been for the choir, I probably would never come in contact with them and I would've never had these great and new relationships.

CP: For a lot of us, hearing Pharrell talk about gospel or Christian content is a new thing. Hearing him say things such as the bishop "has an anointing on him" or that a contestant can "sing cancer out of the body," how was it for you working with him, getting the spiritual side of him? 

Riddick: It's very rewarding. The thing is Pharrell and I grew up together in the same church. As it relates to the Church, we came up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. His grandmother was our church mother. And bishop, when I was a kid was our minister of music. Then he came back and he was my organist and I was the minister of music. So Pharrell is not new to any of that. 

He was always doing music and he was doing pop and he was always gone. It kind of left us all wondering, "Does he remember any of that? Does he acknowledge any of that? What does he think?”

Then here we are in the show and it's coming out. It lets you know, the Bible is right. It says to train up a child and the way they should go and when he is older, they will not depart. This stuff is coming out and I'm just like, "Yo, this is really Pharrell saying this? It's in him, yes Lord!"

CP: How did you go about choosing the right people with the right motives to be apart of the choir?

Riddick: Every singer that made it initially, they were amazing. Really what we utilized more so, was just letting time and circumstance do a lot of the weeding. There were very few people that I had to say, "You know, your time is up." 

We put prayer in the beginning. There was prayer all through it, and there was prayer at the end. So I believe the way God wanted it to line up and wanted it to happen, is truly what happened and how it went.

Some people just realize that the travel was just too much. Or, there were some people that were amazing singers, and they knew that it was gospel. But I think them being involved made them realize, "While I'm interested in singing, I really don't want to be a gospel singer." So then they stepped away. 

Then there were some that we won, that never sung gospel before, didn't understand it. I mean, they were getting touched like you wouldn't believe, tears are coming down. They were like, "I want more than this. This is what I want to do. I don't want to sing anything else. I want to stay around." So God just did a separating through the whole process.

CP: How does this choir differ from Kanye West's Sunday Service or other choirs?

Riddick: I honestly can't say that I know how it's different because I don't know the journey and how Kanye, in particular, set up for what they do.

I do enjoy what they do. I just know for us, we went on a search locally, throughout the region, to really find some undiscovered singers. I've been here a long time and I've thought I pretty much knew all of the singers. And here we are with thousands coming from out of nowhere. I'm left every day holding my head with my mouth hung open. 

CP: What do you hope for the choir?

Riddick: My hope is that the choir will continue on together and to really hone in on who we are, and serve by providing some great music. Even further, it is my prayer and my desire that each singer that auditioned, that doors open for them individually as well.

Because a lot of them were looking for great opportunity and I believe that you reap what you sow. My prayer is, "God, they're sowing, they're sacrificing, they're stepping out, this is new for a lot of them, but they also have their own dreams and their own visions." And I'm saying, "Lord, let their gifts make room for them."

CP: What do you want the viewers to take from watching the journey of a choir coming together?

Riddick: That it is not as easy as it looks! It is not easy.

You know, sometimes people sit back and they judge and look. People have off days or whatever. But I think that them watching the show, they'll understand just how much work is put into it.

And they'll understand the importance of the choir. Because a lot of our churches have gotten away from choir and choir music. Without a choir, we don't get the great soloist and we don't even get the great praise teams because the choir is really your training ground. 

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